Dovrefjell, the home of the musk ox

The Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park is the only home on the European continent of an animal that existed during the Ice Age, a legendary mammal: the musk ox.

As I trek through a layer of snow, at -10ºC, I scan the horizon for any moving black dots. I have to take advantage of moments when the blizzard subsides. When it starts to snow and the wind blows, the entire landscape becomes a white canvas.

After a short hike, I spot them. A group of musk oxen. There are some calves. Some are eating and others are lying down. It’s a priority for me not to disturb them. In the winter, the weather in the tundra is very harsh. There are seasons where these mammals lose almost half their weight. That’s why I don’t want to scare them and make them waste energy unnecessarily.

I approach slowly, analyzing their behavior. As long as they continue eating and lying down, ignoring me, it means my presence doesn’t scare them. When I’m close enough, I lie down in the snow and start taking pictures. The excitement has made me forget about the cold.

It’s impressive to think that these majestic mammals existed during the Ice Age, and coexisted with iconic animals such as mammoths. A demonstration of their great resistance and adaptation to the tundra climate. Only out of control hunting of musk oxen almost caused the extinction of this species at the end of the 19th century. On the European continent it disappeared. And it wasn’t until 1932 that they returned, when ten specimens from Greenland were brought to the mountains of Dovrefjell. With the intention of recovering a territory that they should never have lost.

Currently, there are more than two hundred musk oxen in Norway. Although their future is uncertain. Climate change can be devastating for this species, with the exacerbation of the already extreme climate of the ecosystems they inhabit.

As the snow starts to fall and the wind starts to blow, all the musk oxen gather and lie down on the ground. A tough winter night awaits them. It’s also time for me to head back to the car before the sun sets and the temperature drops even more.

Dawn in Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park.


Musk oxen are unable to break through ice. They need to find areas of grass covered only by snow, which they clear away using their thick legs.


During mating season, male musk oxen compete by head-butting. The strongest will secure a harem of around six females. In winter, they also sometimes engage in head-butting. The reason for this behavior is unknown.


A group of musk oxen eating. As snow covers the landscape, it will become more difficult for them to find food.


The thick fur of these animals provides protection against extreme temperatures. It consists of two layers that help retain heat. The inner layer is dense and composed of short and fine hairs that are well adhered to each other. The outer layer, on the other hand, is made up of long, thick, soft, and woolly hairs.


Musk oxen calves are always accompanied by adult animals. Their main predator is the wolf, although there is no established population in Dovrefjell.


A roe deer in the meadows surrounding the Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park.


Dawn in the Dovrefjell mountains. Everything is frozen.


Some days, the sun’s light can peek through the clouds. Then the landscape is tinged with magic.


The wind is blowing, constantly lifting snow.


The musk oxen stoically wait for the blizzard to pass. Their face and back gradually become covered in snow.


These animals are called “musk oxen” due to the fact that the male has a gland that emits a strong musk-like aroma during mating season.


Photographing in the tundra during winter can be a real challenge. The gusts of wind raise the snow and the field of vision is greatly reduced.


Musk oxen belong to the subfamily “Caprinae”, making them more closely related to goats or sheep than to oxen, bison, or buffalo.


The rock mounds in Dovrefjell are very useful for orientation. Due to the cold, it is easy to run out of battery on the GPS or mobile phone.


The dark fur of the musk oxen stands out against the white of the snow.


In Dovrefjell, there are not only musk oxen. It is also home to reindeer, elk, arctic foxes, snow partridges and Arctic hares (like the one in the photo).